American Soldier

By Fontenot, Gregory | Military Review, May-June 2005 | Go to article overview
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American Soldier


Fontenot, Gregory, Military Review


The military autobiography is an old, well-established genre dating back as far as Julius Caesar, who set the standard. Some writers have met the challenge, including Union General Ulysses S. Grant, whose autobiography, Personal Memoirs of Ulysses S. Grant, avoided the turgid, self-serving prose that characterized virtually all autobiographies of his era. (1) British Prime Minister Winston Churchill's, My Early Life: A Roving Commission is brilliant. (2) Churchill also deserves high marks for his biography of the Duke of Marlborough, Marlborough: His Life and Times, Book One. (3) General Dwight D. Eisenhower's writings, At Ease: Stories I Tell to Friends and Crusade in Europe, are also well done. (4)

But, there are far more poorly written biographies and autobiographies by generals than there are good ones. Confederate General James Longstreet and Union General William Tecumseh Sherman were interesting men who played important roles during an interesting time; however, they produced ponderous, nearly unreadable accounts of their experiences. Neither showed the least bit of talent in making his own life interesting. After Operation Desert Storm many military autobiographies emerged. Nearly all, well written or not, have contributed to the understanding of the operation.

U.S. Generals Norman Schwartzkopf, Colin Powell, William G. Pagonis, Frederick Franks, Charles A. Homer, Anthony Zinni, Rogue M. Steiner, and Wesley K. Clark have published memoirs in the last decade. Foreign officers have also published accounts of experiences in the Falklands, Iraq, and the Balkans. The Iraq War will most likely produce another bevy of memoirs.

Not surprisingly, U.S. General Tommy Franks' autobiography, American Soldier, was "on the street" quickly. (5) Franks who retired soon after a major combat operation ended (many of his colleagues remain on active duty), had a lucrative contract and a guaranteed best seller before he wrote his first word. In short, he had ample motivation.

American Soldier, a great story, is straightforward in ways most autobiographies are not. The book's first half is evocative of soldiering and Vietnam, with Franks sharing much about himself, how he thinks, and what his strengths and weaknesses are. He is the genuine article, rising high from humble beginnings--the American Dream fulfilled.

When Franks received orders for Vietnam, his father, a hard-working, determined man of principle, advised him to make a hand; that is, to carry his share of the load. Franks made a hand, and American Soldier tells in a captivating, lucid, compelling voice, how he learned the art of soldiering, survived combat, and grew as a soldier.

The book's second half is as honest, captivating, illuminating, and direct as the first. Franks leaves no doubt about his feelings for service chiefs, making it clear they were not in the chain of command and should stay out of combatant commanders' business. Franks gave short shrift to virtually any recommendation or criticism he received from the chiefs, characterizing their input for operations in Afghanistan as "parochial bullshit."

While service chiefs were often inclined to take parochial views, Frank's anger toward them seems out of proportion to the interference for which he claims they were responsible. He also found some senior Department of Defense executives unhelpful; in particular, Undersecretary Doug Feith, who was not held in high esteem at Central Command (CENTCOM).

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